Tough Love: 7 Tips for Open and Honest Communication in a Writers Group

writers_group_critiqueby Shelley Koon

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a tough critic. I’ve been known to make grown men cry. Not one of my proudest moments, but one I refuse to apologize for. Why? Because I was delivering open and honest feedback in the most constructive way I possibly could in an attempt to help a writer improve their craft.

Getting feedback on your work can be tough. Your manuscript is your baby: you’ve cared for, nurtured, and loved it even at its ugliest stages, but most writers go into a critique expecting to do a bit of flinching from the feedback we receive. What I don’t think many writers expect is how intimidating giving feedback can be, and as a result, many struggle far more with doling out bad news than they do when receiving it. There’s fear of hurting the feelings of those you’ve built friendships with, and yes, to a certain extent, a fear of retaliation. So how do you get over that fear and learn to give the open and honest feedback a writer needs to improve their writing and craft an manuscript worthy of a nod from an agent? This blogger has some suggestions:

  1. Read the submission through once as a reader. This gives you the opportunity to love the writer with all their faults. We do love our critique partners and all their words!
  2. Read the submission the second time through as a critiquer. Remove your personal connections from the writer and read the submission as if you’re reading the work of an unknown author. This gets easier over time, but you can do it!
  3. Praise the good parts. Mark the stuff that makes you swoon with delight, note passages that resonate with you, and find what’s good and needs to stay.
  4. Mention the bad and the ugly. Mark the stuff the makes you stop reading. This can be anything: poor grammar/misspelled words, POV, too much telling, plot holes, and so on. Anything that makes you stop reading to question the story or forces you to reread for clarification is an issue. Mark it even if you can’t quite pinpoint the issue. Chances are another critiquer will have noticed it to, and it may be an issue that needs to be addressed.
  5. Write a summary and tell the writer what works for you and what doesn’t. Your comments are not arguing points. They’re your opinions. If you always keep this in mind, giving feedback becomes much easier because you aren’t telling the writer they’re wrong. You’re just offering feedback that they can use as they wish.
  6. Bring a sandwich. Because those critique sessions can run long sometimes! Just joking . . . “Sandwiching” in a critique group is the process of giving feedback in a good news/bad news/good news format. Start off with what you loved about the submission, then move into what didn’t work for you, and finish with the writer’s strengths. That said, be honest! Let’s face it, there are some submissions that are just a hot mess (yeah, I have some of those . . .), and I never advocate blowing sunshine up someone’s bum. During tough critiques, I remind the writer that the fact that they wrote and came to a critique group puts them leaps and bounds above the rest of the pack. I also let them know that if they give up on their writing because of a tough critique session, I promise to send Guido out to kneecap them. Just kidding! His name’s not Guido, it’s Ralph . . .
  7. Come with a warning label. This last bit of advice is for people like me who have no qualms about giving and receiving some tough love. I make it a habit to tell my critique partners that I’m under the assumption they’ve joined the critique group to improve their writing with the intent of seeking publication. Because of this assumption, I don’t hold back because I want them to be successful. I want them to know everything that tripped me up when reading because it will probably get caught by an agent or editor as well. I find when I share this information up front, writers understand the angle I’m coming from, and it’s easier for them to take our friendship out of the equation during their critique.

Lastly, realize your feedback truly is important to the writers in your writers group, and never be afraid to help them improve.


This article was originally published August 28, 2013 here.



Shelley Koon is a YA author, internationally published artist of creepy and dark art, designer, and photographer. A recent transplant from the northern beaches of California to the eastern beaches of Delaware, she’s currently trying to adjust to the ocean being on the wrong side of the state.

An advocate for critique groups, Shelley explores the ins and outs of said groups on her blog WriteScared.com and is currently serving as the critique group coordinator for SCBWI’s MD/DE/WV region.

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  1. Our local group is in the process of setting up guidelines because we have one member who doesn’t give critiques. He refers to other work as “crap” if it’s not in his genre. Our group has so many members with varying degrees of experience. He has completely devastated some of our “newbies”. I think there’s a difference in being constructive and in being cruel. I like the “sandwich”. Love this list!

    1. Hi Kathy!

      Thank you so much for stopping by to read and leaving a comment. It’s certainly a pleasure to have someone in the critique group who is watchful of grammar/spelling. I’m fortunate to have professional editors in two of my groups (and spend a great deal of time apologizing to them for murdering the English language!).

      That said, I’ve found critique group members come in many flavors. Some tend be amazing grammarians (like the two I torture…)while others might be great at plot and/or character issues and so on. I myself tend to be pretty good at plot and scene setting/world building/continuity person (I’m guessing that last bit comes from my background in the visual arts – who knows).

      While I’m the first to admit I’m NOT the girl you want to go to for grammar, I will tell you (with no shame at all :P) that I’m the girl that can catch your plot holes, impossible visual scenes and continuity issues from six chapters ago.

      Some of the very best feedback I’ve gotten comes from a member whose first language is not English. She struggles with grammar and spelling but still delivers amazing insight on characterization and plot. I can’t imagine not having her as a critique partner.

  2. Linda,

    Years ago I had a critique in an online class that was brutal and very personal (in other words he attacked me, the writer, and didn’t address what wasn’t working for him in my submission). I was devastated and it would be a few years before I would share anything with anyone again – funny when you consider my love for critique groups now! We learn from all our experiences and that one taught me a great deal about delivering feedback.

    You’re right on with setting up guidelines, and if you have a member that doesn’t abide by them then it’s time for them to move on. I usually give a member the benefit of the doubt once, the second time they sidestep the group’s agreed upon guidelines I call them out on it (nicely of course) and the third time they get the “This group doesn’t appear to be working for you. We’re sad to see you go but wish you the best in finding a group that better suits your needs” speech.

    I wish you the very best!

  3. Hi. I also appreciate your post. I recently had a devastating critique of a novel in need of help by my group. I know it needed help, but I also thought it was a good story and I trusted my group to help me. The worst thing that happened was EVERYONE BUT ONE MEMBER forgot the sandwich rule. They dived in with what didn’t work and, if at all, (like I could hear at that point), “there’s a story in there though” was a short, sad end note. One guy didn’t read past page 70, stating he couldn’t get into it, when that’s not the point, the point is we were supposed to have signed up to help each other become better writers. One member was incensed because it wasn’t up to what she expected from me. (Duh, I sent a novel that needed help, not just applause, although a little would have been appreciated.)and started in with “hated” “headache” and gun to the head gestures about having to read it. That of course totally intimidated the weaker members of the group. Two others (including the one mentioned above who remembered the sandwich rule) championed it and offered to roll up their sleeves to do the work with me to help me straighten out the things that were amiss. But mostly I was shell-shocked. I came home shattered. I cried for four weeks. I didn’t want them to know I was that devastated. I wanted to regroup myself privately if possible to both save myself embarrassment and also spare them from knowing how bad I felt. (The sandwich rule really helps me, being so sensitive, to hear and not just leave as an emotional wreck. And along with hearing about weak areas, I need concrete suggestions otherwise it doesn’t help me know how to proceed.) So then the group interpreted my devastation (I continued showing up for meetings but I was not myself) as if I was being unfriendly. I finally realized that this group is NOT interested in critiquing. They are interested in drinking and being entertained. Both of those things are fun. I like them too. But I realized that my novel and serious sandwich critiquing wasn’t part of this group. My bad. My lessons are long and hard. This piece needs serious support to work AND there is a huge difference between a drinking group that calls itself a writing group and a serious writing group: Hint: no one gets published after two to four years. Critiques need to be useful and care about the writing never just “liked” “loved,” (the “I wanna be your friend so I’ll speak no evil and yes you ARE a GOD” critiquer) “didn’t like,” “hated” (mean). No one who uses the sandwich rule correctly should be punished or ostracized either. No cross talking during critiques. Most of all, the Sandwich Rule must Rule. I am so sorry to hear you had such a mean experience that you couldn’t share for years!

  4. There is also one other rule that I find essential, which is that work in a writing group is private and should never ever be shared outside the group without permission. You would be surprised how many times I have seen people just assume that they could share another writer’s raw drafts and even post them on line or leave it on their computers for their friends and family to read -without permission- too.